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Outdoor Lighting Design #101 for a Radiant Patio & Backyard

Reading this will take about: 16 minutes
outdoor lighting design design patio backyard garden

Outdoor lighting design can drastically change how your patio and backyard are perceived. Lighting can direct, create zones, and add specific mood, so you can not only rest & relax outside after the sunset but also have a date with a spouse.

The outdoor lighting design process consists out of 3 simple elements: creating an area plan, choosing a lighting strategy, and picking lighting fixtures. It is important to include ambient, task, and accent lights in outdoor lighting design as well as using fixtures that are outdoor rated.

It sounds easy? It sure can be if you follow the no-nonsense guide below, in which I cut all the noises to show you exactly how to plan your outdoor lighting so it fits all your needs (and maybe even exceeds your expectations).

Outdoor lighting design #1: Create a plan of the area to illuminate

To start the designing process it is crucial to determine the exact area you want to illuminate. In the pictures above you can see a whole pool area (1), and an outdoor kitchen (2). You can work with the space of your choice. Remember to include massive plants (when they can become the obstacle or a focal point after sunset) or pathways (when the place you want to spend time after sunset is at a distance from your house).

Now create an outdoor lighting design plan with 4 steps listed below:

  1. Draw the whole area in a proper scale, with an outdoor kitchen, dining table, fireplace, pool, fance, big plants and everything else located in it.
  2. Mark all the workspaces (red), dining (yellow), and relaxing areas (blue).
  3. Draw paths people are going to follow to reach the restroom and kitchen (dotted line).
  4. Look around for interesting elements worth accentuating, like a brick wall, bar, grill, stone countertop, a plant/tree (mark with X).

Now you have your plan. Time to figure your strategy.

Outdoor lighting design #2: Figure your expectations

There are so many things you can achieve with outdoor lighting design! Seriously, the list is endless. So it is crucial at the very beginning to figure what your goal is. I hope the pictures above are going to help you to figure what your expectations are.

In the first picture, you can see an outdoor lighting design for a deck outdoor kitchen. It consists out of wall-mounted lights (task lights) and string lights attached to the awning and an umbrella (ambient lights). This is a budget-friendly solution that delivers a much-needed function.

The second picture shows a pool area with multiple functional zones (inside of the pool, bar, lounging area). What comes in handy in such areas is designing outdoor lighting separately for each zone, so you can turn them on when needed, and also have the desired effect in each zone – bar needs to be illuminated enough so you can prepare drinks, while in the lounging area you want as little lights as possible to be able to see stars.

The third picture shows a sophisticated outdoor lighting design. What differs sophisticated outdoor lighting design is using the light not only for illuminating but also for stressing assets. What brings attention in the last design is the texture of posts. There are so many effects you can achieve: glazing, sparkling, washing, and more! At the end of this post, you’ll be able to learn more about it.

You don’t know yet which way to choose? There are a few things to consider. First of all the budget: more expensive designs are especially worth considering if you plan to sell the house, as pictures of the illuminated backyard are a selling point. Second of all if you want to go for a grand effect with a moderate budget check your electrical installation – it may occur it needs expanding if you’re going to add plenty of new fixtures outdoors.

Outdoor lighting design #3: Choose your fixtures

Outdoor lighting design. Types of pictures: ambient, task, accent
Outdoor lighting design. Types of pictures: ambient, task, accent

So you know now what is your goal and have your plan ready. Now it is time to get to know lighting types and specific fixtures, you can use in your design.

There are basically 3 types of outdoor lighting:

  • ambient,
  • task,
  • accent.

Ambient lighting is the one that keeps the whole area well illuminated. This one most of all is going to need a dimmer, as people need less and less light when the night is passing. In fact, lowering the intensity of light is going to help to fall asleep later. The intensity of light influences also the speed people eat. When the light is intense they tend to eat faster and finish the night earlier. So if you wish for your party to last a dimmer can be a useful tool.

Task lights’ goal is to brighten up every area where work takes place – from a countertop to the inside of the shelf. This is the crucial element for safety. You add a task light to working areas, like a countertop at an outdoor kitchen, or a bar counter.

Accent lights are used to stress the surface structure or a specific element of the area. The purpose of this type is not only to beautify the space but also to guide guests (for example to the bathroom). Finding a switch, or accessing a house shouldn’t be problematic when they’re well designed.

What is important to know at this very moment is: there are fixtures that can do it all. So it’s not like you need a different one for every job. Look at your plan now to think about what types of lighting are needed and where. Now it’s time to get to know the outdoor lighting fixtures.

Fixture typeAmbientTaskAccent
A fan with a light fixture
Chandelier
String lights
Scones
Recessed outdoor kitchen lights
Grill lights
Under countertop lighting
Pendant
Track lights
Landscape lights
Pathway lights

As you can see there are plenty of fixtures that can deliver more than one lighting type. This matters when you try to limit the number of fixtures, as more fixtures usually need more power. This results in both: higher monthly bills and an additional budget for the electrician.

Let’s start with the ambient outdoor lighting design.

Outdoor lighting design: Ambient lights

outdoor lighting design patio ambient
Outdoor kitchen lighting: Ambient lights

Ambient light is the one that shows where to spend time after sunset at your patio and backyard. So the main goal is to add ambient light fixtures where you want people to cook, dine, lounge, sit, etc. Let’s go now through specific fixtures so you can choose what works best for you.

A king of the patio outdoor lighting design: A fan with a light fixture

Why is it so great you may ask? Let me tell you. First of all, it is a device that combines plenty of much-wanted features. It not only illuminates the space but also adds a breeze. Some fans can also spray the mist (the dreamiest ones).

The spiders and flying insects do not enjoy fans. And that is the big fat selling point of these fixtures to me. As you want to illuminate the area after the sunset most lights are going to invite insects, but not this one.

It works great for the patio, and it is excellent for both the dining and cooking area.

If you know an outdoor fan is a solution for you the crucial thing is to choose a proper size for your patio/gazebo. The bigger space is the bigger the fan has to be (or multiple fans need to be added).

Space sizeFan size
up to 75 sq ft29 – 36 in
76 – 144 sq ft36-42 in
144 – 225 sq ft44 in
225 – 400 sq ft50-54 in
Outdoor lighting design: outdoor fan sizing

How to work with the table? If your space is 144 sq ft you can either install one fan 36-42 in or two 29-36 in. One is going to work better in an area closer to square, two are going to be a better solution for rectangular space.

How about using a fan when the ceiling is finished, or the enclosure is not permanent? I know two ways:

  • portable fans with light sources (they come with a cable to plug into the socket),
  • standing fans with light sources (same story).

Portable and standing lights may be useful also in places, where the weather changes drastically during the year. Snowy winter is not an issue when your fixture is stored in the garage, is it?

Outdoor lighting design: a chandelier

This is a fixture that is not going to work for every style, as it is usually a statement (btw if you’re looking for advice on styling your outdoor kitchen area with light fixtures go to this blog post). A chandelier will draw the eyes’ attention and can help in creating a focal point. It can be used to full the eye, as using a slightly-to-big chandelier may actually visually enlarge the space.

Chandeliers work best on patios, as they can be used to enhance the much-wanted indoor-outdoor experience. What is great about this exact frame can be used for sophisticated strategy, as it creates a glitter effect.

It is important though to use outdoor-rated chandeliers. And yes, it applies to all outdoor fixtures, but it drastically cuts the number of accessible products in this category.

Outdoor lighting design: string lights

String lights can add a tone of charm to the whole area. They’re inexpensive, look amazing, and illuminate with a soft light whatever you need. There are plenty of rules to follow with them though. I find this guide helpful, especially from the technical perspective (choosing proper bulbs and electrical safety limits).

As you can see in the pictures above they can be used as ambient and accent light, and the great benefit is you can simply plug them, so no electrician needs to assist you. If you’re a fan of these remember to dust them frequently, as spiders enjoy them too.

There are plenty of patterns to hang string lights, but I find these 6 most useful:

  • The Horizon Point
  • The Scalloped Square
  • The Tent Point
  • The V
  • The X
  • The Zig-Zag W

The horizon Point, the Tent Point, and the Zig-Zag are going to give more light, as more bulbs are located in the same areas.

It’s worth knowing that string lights length should be the space measure + 2-6 ft. The reason is string lights need to hang a bit to look good. So if your space is 30 ft wide, your string lights should be between 32 and 36, depending on what effect are you looking for.

Outdoor lighting design: the scone

Scones can do miracles outdoors. This fixture can work as ambient, task, and accent light. It can also be used to add sophisticated lighting effects. It comes in plenty of styles and a full price range (so it fits every budget).

There are three different configurations of outdoor scones:

  • uplight,
  • downlight,
  • up/ downlight,

Uplight, scones are designed to cast light upwards. They’re designed to make the area larger and more open.

Downlight scones can make an area look warm and cozy. If you have the feeling, that your outdoor kitchen area is too big it is the one to go for.

Up/ downlight scones give light in both directions and help to balance the space. These are my favorites. Most often this is the type to go for, especially as an ambient lighting source.

There are plenty of types of outdoor scones, like half-moon, lantern, candle, sign light. If you already have them around the exterior of the house buying the same is a good idea.

Wall scones are installed 60″ – 72″ above the finished floor, and traditionally would be placed 6′ apart. What is important to know is they should be installed 24″ – 30″ above the countertop.

Scones are working great in the areas that are not too deep, in others, additional light sources need to be added.

Outdoor lighting design: recessed lights

This is a great solution for a patio. It allows an even illumination and wisely used can add plenty is sophisticated lighting effects to the area.

The con is adding recessed lights to the finished space is a pain. A similar effect can be achieved with dimmable portable LED fixtures, that can be attached to a finished space.

How many do you need? If you’re going for an even illumination 1 recessed light should be installed for every 4-6 square feet of the ceiling. It is worth illuminating this way crucial areas, like dining and cooking areas. Others may have fewer fixtures above or none.

The dimmer is a must-have solution for recessed lights.

Did you choose your ambient fixtures? It’s time to decide both – which are you going for as well as where do you want to add them.

The next task is designing a task lighting

Outdoor lighting design: task lights

Multiple types of light can be used as task lights in the outdoor kitchen area. Below I’ll reveal my picks.

Outdoor lighting design: grill lights

Outdoor kitchen lighting design: grill light fixture
Outdoor kitchen lighting design: grill light fixture

If there would be only one thing to illuminate with task light in an outdoor kitchen area it should be the grill. This is what has to be done to avoid burns, serving raw food, and control insect visits.

There are plenty of solutions to choose from. Inexpensive clip-on the handle lights, on countertop lamps with deck or clamp base, halogens, downlight scones. There is literally something for every budget.

The great advantage of such lights is the possibility to turn them on and off when needed (avoiding flying insects).

It is important to choose a grill light fixture that provides enough light for cooking. The amount to go for is 100 lumens or more.

As this one makes cooking in the dark way more convenient it is also an excellent gift idea for fellow outdoor chefs.

Outdoor lighting design: outdoor kitchen/bar counter lights

Outdoor kitchen lighting: Counter lights
Outdoor kitchen lighting: Counter lights

Preparing food without illumination is not as dangerous as grilling it, but using sharp tools in a dark is rather not a clever idea. Thankfully there are plenty of solutions to choose from: not only traditional fixtures but also LED strings that can be easily added to the finished space.

Usually, lights are mounted above or under a counter, but as can be seen in the picture above, it can also be a mix of both.

Installing lights slightly above the counter is going to massively improve food or drinks preparation. It also can put an accent on the material a bar or an outdoor kitchen was made of. Both texture and smoothness can be accented with counter lights very well.

Adding light under the counter can help a lot with orientation in the space, so direct the guests. If the light is directed down it is going to accentuate the beauty of stone or brick. It also shows where precisely the cabinets are, which is not that obvious in the dark.

Outdoor lighting design: the pendant

 Outdoor kitchen lighting: A pendant fixture
Outdoor lighting design: A pendant fixture

Pendant is a fixture that is rather not going to work with the simple strategy, but can work pretty well with standard and sophisticated, as it usually is a part of supplemental lighting (turned on while needed). It can create a focal point above the bar or dining area.

These fixtures are usually hung on a sight level, so have to reflect the overall style of the outdoor kitchen or bar. If you’re going for rustic woven or metal can do great. If you’re going for industrial a metal, glass or concrete can work well. For modern look glass and geometrical forms are going to do an excellent job.

There are multiple rules to follow while installing pendant fixtures:

  1. They should be installed at least 12″ from the edge of the countertop
  2. They should be installed about 30″ apart
  3. Bottom of the lamp should be 30″ – 36″ above the countertop

There are multiple types to choose from: drum, dome, linear, lanterns, bowl, and mini. There are so many outdoor-rated pendants it is easy to choose fixtures that fit a specific style.

It’s worth knowing that pendants can actually be a task, accent, and ambient light fixture. With dark color shades, pendants are going to work as a task lighting. Ambient lighting can be created when a pendant is equipped with clear or light-colored shades. Accent lighting can be created out of two pendants hanging over the side table or a focal point.

That is the last section of task lights. Choose these you find useful and place them on your plan.

Outdoor lighting design: accent lights

Outdoor lighting design: accent lights
Outdoor lighting design: accent lights

Accent lights can not only beautify the space but also guide guests. It is important not to omit them in the design. It can be used to guide people – show the light switch, or entrance. If space lacks a real focal point it can be created with light. Options are really limited by imagination and budget.

Outdoor areas are very often constructed out of interesting materials like stone or concrete. Their texture is something accent lights are going to enhance amazingly.

If there is a great plant or tree in the area it’s worth considering illuminating it as well. The effect often exceeds expectations.

Outdoor lighting design: track light

outdoor kitchen track lighting
Outdoor lighting design: track lighting

Track lighting can easily work as a multifunctional light source. It not only illuminates multiple areas at the same time but also can be used to add sophistication to the design, by accentuating the smoothness of the walls.

This is an amazing fixture for outdoors, but it requires proper installation. If the ceiling is up to 9″ track lights should be placed 2″ – 3″ from the wall. For a higher ceiling the distance is 3″ – 4″. The distance between fixtures should be the same as the distance from the wall.

Outdoor lighting design: Landscape lights

Using light to accentuate nature in the backyard cannot be a wrong move. And it can be done in so many ways – from string lights, through LED balls, to reflectors. It is going to fit any style and suit any pocket.

There are multiple effects one may go for in this area. The main is you can actually enlarge your patio space at night by extending it with light. This way accentuating a tree or other plant is not going to add only visual interest in the distance, but also influence the way a patio is perceived.

Outdoor lighting design: Pathway lights

This is actually a crucial part of your outdoor lighting design plan. If there is a frequently used at night path it needs to be illuminated. It can be done with a number of fixtures. Most of them are solar lights, so do not require any electrical jobs.

Now you know what you need. Add accent lights to your plan.

How to enhance an outdoor lighting design to be sophisticated?

Outdoor lighting design: How to use a sophisticated strategy?

The basic design offers mainly function. Standard allows you to illuminate specific areas of the backyard when needed. Sophisticated is all about creating new quality.

There are multiple effects an outdoor lighting can produce, as:

  • key light (shining light on an object from a single point source of light),
  • fill light (shining light on an object from two sources for more drama),
  • silhouetting (intense of diffused fill light showing off the silhouette),
  • sparkle effect (producing sharp reflections on specular surfaces),
  • glitter effect (a light fixture itself produces an effect),
  • grazing surfaces (light strikes the surface at a sharp angle)
  • washing surfaces (light strikes the surface at a wider angle).

Going for sophisticated design is most often not choosing different fixtures, but using chosen purposely.

Look at your plan again – try to figure if you can have fewer fixtures (good for your project budget as well as an electrical bill), and if these you added can be used for an effect too.

Below you’ll find a FAQ with technical questions one may have.

Outdoor lighting FAQ

How many lumens should an outdoor lighting fixture have?

That is actually a very important question to ask, and a great check-up for an outdoor kitchen lighting design. There are areas of an outdoor kitchen area that need plenty of light, and some can have less. The dining area (table, bar) needs about 30 – 40 lumens per 1 sq ft. An outdoor kitchen needs about 30 – 40 lumens per 1 sq ft. Grill and sink should get about 70 – 80 lumens per 1 sq ft.

How many lux should an outdoor lighting fixture have?

This is a way to rather figure the power of a fixture than the overall design. 1 lux is the size of the area a candle can illuminate. A standard 100W bulb produces about 1,500 – 1,700 lumens.

How the outdoor lighting fixtures I choose, affect electricity costs?

If you want to be cost-efficient in the future it is worth picking LEDs from the very beginning. LED lights to use 50% less energy than CFLs and last up to 5 times longer. Additionally, they work well in outdoor temperatures and become fully bright immediately.

What temperature lights to go for outdoors?

The best temperature for the outdoor kitchen lights is 2700 – 3000 Kelvin (warm color temperatures). These lights are used after the sunset, so the goal is to create a calm, pleasing environment. As the night passes by it’s worth lowering the intensity of light.

Now it’s your turn

I hope you find my article about outdoor lighting design useful.

Now I’d like to hear from you: which type of lighting delighted you most?

Was it the chandelier, or rather pendants?

And did you already know everything about outdoor lighting design or did some of my tips surprise you?

Either way, let me know by leaving a quick comment below.

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